1907 Chicago to Alton Relay
400 Miles in 23 Hours — The Flight of the Meteor
A. T. Griffith
The relay race from Chicago to St. Louis by way of the inland waterways of
Illinois was a spectacular effort to interest our spectator Chief Executive in a
spectacular project. Just what Mayor Busse transmitted to President Roosevelt
doesn't matter -- it was something long and formal about a deep waterway from
the Great Lakes to the Gulf. The real message was the water-soaked pouch which
bore every mark of its strenuous passage -- which spoke for the red-blooded
enthusiasm of the promoters. And that is what Mr. Griffith tells us about. To
understand him thoroughly you should know how, in a heap, those western
sportsmen jump into anything which promises fun and excitement
Walter Brown Wilde was nervous. There was no getting around that fact. For a week the big 60-horsepower Rutenber motor had "bucked." It was an unusual condition of affairs, but here he was entrusted with the task of carrying Mayor Busse's message of greeting from Peoria to La Grange lock, a distance of 109 miles and his motor had been sulking. It was a few minutes before 9 a.m. and dressed in yellow oil skins, Walter was hurriedly making the last arrangements. The little boat house in which lay the Meteor was crowded with men willing to assist him. Some were hustling life belts into the boat, others rubbed and scrubbed at the engine, while it took three men to attach the little silk pennant of the Illinois Valley Yacht Club to the long slender bow of the racer. Commodore Tom Webb bustled in and out. He gave directions and suggestions and occasionally issued a bulletin on just how fast Rolla H. Truitt was reported to have accomplished some particular lap between Peru and Peoria. Truitt was coming all right -- coming like the wind and those scraps of information did not tend to quiet Walter B's nerves.
As a last precautionary measure a new carburetor and couplings, and extra armful of pipe tongs and wrenches were dumped into the boat, which had been relieved of her reversing clutch to insure greater speed and reliability. This last precaution prevented the boat from being gracefully handled but the main object was a long straight run, and the stopping and starting were minor matters. The last tin cup of oil was finally poured into the crank box and a dozen men carefully pushed the Meteor back into the river. On board were Walter B. Wilde and his boon friend and companion, Walter F. McLaughlin.
It was to be a preliminary spin and L. Kirk Dewein was to try some motion photos from Ellis Bros. dock. After some jockeying around the Meteor was snapped and then brought alongside of the dock. Some more tinkering was indulged in and a jug of water and a box of sandwiches were stowed under the after deck. More bulletins were issued by Commodore Tom. Busse's message had left Chicago at 11:35 a.m. the day previous, had reached Ottawa at 8:45 p.m., and remained there all night. This delay was occasioned by a desire of the Illinois Power Boat Club to make a daylight run and to open and inaugurate the new lock of the drainage district near Joliet. Their change of the original schedule, which called for a start at one minute past midnight on the morning of the 1st had been made without consulting Tom Webb, and his arrangements in the Illinois river could not at that time be changed.
After the Lizzie S, in charge of Commodore Wiese and piloted by Leroy Cook, the Chicago agent of the I.V.Y.C., had safely covered their 80 miles in eight hours and ten minutes, E. H. Heilbron took up the task at 5 a.m. on the morning of the 1st. His Irondoquoit broke down on account of defective vibrators and the Irene put the message through to Peru, 40 minutes behind schedule at 7:39 a.m.
Here Rolla H. Truitt took it up with his new Adieu. Accompanied by C. E. Stillman and a Chicago newspaper man named Persons, he promptly began to make up the lost 40 minutes of the Illinois river schedule. These reports were filtering over long distance phones to Tom Webb, who in turn imparted them to the nervous skipper of the Meteor.
About 10:20 a.m. it was thought advisable to get the flyer under way. The boat was as ready as it was possible to have her. With McLaughlin at the wheel, Wilde over the engine and the writer as deck hand and general utility man the boat slowly moved into the stream.
A short run was made across Main Street and the waiting crowd watched the boat eagerly. After a few preliminary circles it was thought best to tie-in there to await the sighting of the Adieu. A few minutes of this waiting wore on Webb's nerves and as the Adieu had been reported at Rome n early an hour before, he ordered the Meteor to proceed up stream until the message was found. A choppy sea was running and in a minute the Meteor had drenched her crew to the skin in spite of yellow slickers and sou'westers.
Off Spring Street, well out into Peoria lake, the Adieu was sighted half a mile away. She was coming slowly and apparently laboring in the heavy seas. Wilde loafed the Meteor and gradually was overtaken by Truitt.
We had sighted the Adieu at 10:57 a.m. and at 11 o'clock she was alongside. Wilde and Truitt exchanged greetings and Truitt passed to the writer a thin leather covered package. "Take it through and keep it as dry as you can," he said, and in response to a query as to his trip and shook his head and said, "It was rough above." While he was speaking the Chicago newspaper man was introducing himself to everybody and threw his grip and camera over into the Meteor. The boats were traveling ten miles an hour and the instant the message changed hands, Wilde opened the throttle.
"Hold on -- I'm going with you," shouted the Chicago newspaper man, but nobody heard him. The long race to the La Grange lock had started. His grip and camera were going but, drenched to the skin and without a hat, the journalist was doomed to ride in the cars to Alton.
At about a 16-mile gait the Meteor slipped back the white caps and swung over towards Main Street. The little cannon roared. it was 11:04 a.m. by the writer's watch.
"Show 'em the message," Wilde shouted back and as the message had been stowed under the after deck the first available thing happened to be the Chicago man's camera in its leather case. It was duly swung aloft and the crowd cheered. Through the lower wagon bridge the camera was again held into view. It served the purpose and who would know the difference anyway.
Comparatively slow time was made over the first two miles. The engine had not warmed up and the seas were heavy. Rounding the Kickapoo bend four miles south we got the first real touch of cold water. The sharp bow of the Meteor split it and threw it back in steady showers. it came driven by a head wind and with as much velocity as if it had been forced through a fire hose. We crouched low in the boat and made the best of it. Wilde was continually nursing the engine and McLaughlin had his hands full with the tiller, for the water was blinding him every ten seconds.
Seven Mile Island was passed in 25 minutes and all hands were disappointed. "Well, we're doing better than our schedule and if we keep this up we will be in on time anyway," said Wilds, but he was not satisfied. Occasionally someone would turn to see if "Jack" Bailey's trailing Cupid was in sight. he had left a minute or two behind the Meteor but was never sighted after the first turn had been made.
At Pekin, ten miles down stream, the wind was blowing up big white caps under the bridge and the crowd there saw Meteor's crew get a steady pelting as she shot under the draw at 11:40 a.m. It was slow but steady going for the flyer. Here we looked for Harry Wasson with the Glideolea to trail to Copperas creek, but he was nowhere to be seen and we subsequently learned that his engine became disabled just before starting time.
Down to the Pekin Bend and through it the Meteor continued to throw heavy spray, buck a head wind and run by spurts. The Mackinaw river bar, four miles below Pekin, was crossed at 11:59 a.m. and down to Kingston the run was made in seven minutes. Off Lancaster Landing McLaughlin turned the tiller over to the writer. he was not as familiar with the channel for the next twenty miles.
Two miles above Copperas Creek lock the Meteor ploughed into another rough patch of water and another terrific shower bath for a mile or so was endured. In the middle of it Wilde remembered the lunch box. His wife had kindly packed it with fried chicken, sandwiches and pie. Eating was a difficult process. dashes of spray swept over the food, pie was mixed with river water and fried chicken covered with spray, but the lunch was welcome in spite of the strenuous conditions.
Quarter of a mile above Copperas Creek dam George E. Zerwekh's Pup with Vice Commodore Chas. W. Harris on board swung out ahead of the Meteor and started the trail to Havana. It was beautifully done and restored confidence on board the Meteor. Across the dam the two boats shot ahead at full speed and down to towhead No. 1, the Meteor rushed past Pup and we waved a greeting to the crew. Four miles lower down Wilde decided that Meteor better stop and allow him to change a plug. It had been missing from the very start, and the big engines were shut off. Possibly half a minute was consumed in making the change, but while it was done the roar of the exhaust from Pup's engine drew perceptibly nearer. With a snort we were off again and the difference was remarkable. The Meteor steadied up, her speed increased, the water had calmed some and a terrific clip was hit up to Quiver Lake. The Copperas Creek dam, 27 miles from Peoria, had been passed at 12:35 p.m., and Liverpool, 35 miles, at 1:04. On the Havana flats a heavy sea was rolling and Meteor flashed past a small steamer with a cloud of spray. Gasoline was getting low and the skipper said it would be safer to put in at Havana for a few extra gallons. The boat rushed up to a dock, passing F. S. McFadden in Mae, which was in waiting to trail to Beardstown. he shouted that gasoline was waiting and in one minute and a half Meteor and slowed down, landed, gasoline in cans was thrown aboard and the craft was shoved off again.
It was exactly 1:30 p.m. when Meteor left Havana, 52 miles on her way, and right here is where the real running began. Before we were two miles out of the city the river became calm, the wind died out and the engines seemed to take a new lease on life. Their revolutions increased to a steady roar, there was a clicking sound like a fast express train on the rail connections. It was impossible to carry on a conversation without the use of the megaphone and Meteor was really making her flight. It may be that the boat had never been "let out" in waters around Peoria; it may have been the splendid air and water conditions, but Meteor was surely breaking records. Steady as an ocean liner, shooting from point to point as the flight of an arrow, she roared down through the beautiful reaches of the river like no boat had ever done before. There was a quiet smile of satisfaction on Wilde's face and a broad grin of joy on the faces of his crew.
Mussel shell diggers were numerous and they looked up in amazement from their work to catch a fleeting glimpse of the long white flyer and the little ivy pennant snapping forward and three oil-skin covered men crouched down in her hull, as she left a boiling trail of foamy water behind her. Some of them stopped over and clapped their hands. One could almost hear them say, "Go on, go on, old sports, you're cutting down the time."
A roll of charts of the river was in the boat's equipment and some efforts were made to study them, but they were mostly fruitless. Water would dash over them and the steady gale which the boat's motion created blew them in all directions. it was a guess in one or two places as to just where the channel might be, but the guesses fortunately turned out to be good ones. Through the cut off to the right of Grand Island Meteor made a great run. She was working like a watch and stepping a tremendous pace. Browning, 79 miles out, slid by on the moving panorama at 2:40 p.m.
Twenty-five minutes later Beardstown came into sight. There was a large crowd on the bridge there and they had the only real chance to see Meteor in action. Under that bridge at a rate which dope artists have figured to be a 29-mile clip, Meteor shot. We had a flying glimpse of waving hats and could hear encouraging cheers and then almost instantly they were drowned out in the steady roar of the engines and the swish of flying water. That was at 3:-7 p.m. Afterward we learned that bulletins had been posted in the streets announcing that Meteor would arrive there at 3:00 p.m. We were close to their schedule and their calculations. Meteor's speed, based on reports from further up the river were remarkably good
Guesses were made as to our final time at La Grange, then less than twenty miles away and Wilde opened the package containing instructions to racing boats and signed the documents which were to go on through with the message.
It must have been a crumpled-up, water-soaked package which President Roosevelt was handed the next day. Spray had slashed over it in spots and different writers had scrawled their names under trying circumstances upon sheets accompanying it.
All the way down the river Wilde had been worrying about what he should do when he reached La Grange. Would Sparks with Kitty II be there? How was he to know just where Sparks would be? How should he make a landing without a reverse clutch, etc., etc, and when the lock suddenly loomed up on the right he was still at a loss. Right here is where the only serious mishap of the great run might have occurred, but it didn't. Sparks was not in sight. Should Meteor continue the run straight down the river? Wilde thought so. Could she jump the dam? Nobody knew. In the meantime she was rushing straight down the channel. Should we try the jump? Sure -- but life belts were surreptitiously kicked into handy spots. Within 300 feet of the breast of the dam, Capt. Kerr, superintendent of locks, was seen to be signaling frantically to swing into the lock. Meteor swung. Afterwards we looked at the sheer four-foot drop and the boiling water under it and were rather glad the jump was not attempted.
C. F. Sparks and his engineer, Mr. West, eagerly reached down and assisted the lock men to pull us up the wall from Meteor. All hands were stiff and sore but ran along the wall, across the gate and threw the message into the Kitty II, which waited on the lower side of the gate. Sparks shook hands, hastily scrambled down into his boat and with half a minute's more delay, was off in a streak of foam for the south.
It was 3:41 p.m. when Meteor landed and the 109 miles had been covered in an elapsed time of four hours 37 minutes, according to the watches we carried. It had been a tremendous race. Sparks left just three minutes later and finished the 104 miles to Alton in 5 hours 45 minutes, arriving there at 9:19 p.m.
From Peru to Alton, the navigable length of the Illinois river, a distance of 286 miles, three boats belonging to the Illinois Valley Yacht Club had covered the distance in 13 hours and 36 minutes -- something which was never done before on the Illinois and may not be equaled for years to come.
After a short rest at the locks, while a few telephone messages were dispatched, we were helped back down the wall into Meteor and started the return to Beardstown. Three miles up we met Mae steadily coming down the trail of Meteor. She had made a splendid run from Havana in our trail and wheeled in midstream to accompany us back to Beardstown.
The idea of this first relay race which the motor boat world has ever seen originated with the directors of the Illinois Valley Yacht Club at Peoria along last June. It was turned over by Commodore E. H. Bradley to the racing committee of the club. J. H. Bailey, L. E Roby and R. H. Truitt comprise this committee. To make the race an assured success it was decided by this committee to appoint Commodore Tom Webb, a yachtsman of national reputation, a special committee of one to carry out its details.
Through Leroy M. Cook, member of the Columbia Y.C. of Chicago and Chicago agent of the Illinois Valley Yacht Club, the co-operation of the Illinois Power Boat Club was assured. Aided by this club and also the Ottawa Power Boat Co., Ottawa, Ill., Commodore Webb successfully carried out the most remarkable test of power boats ever made. There were unlooked for hitches in Webb's original plans and changes over which he had no control; but as an initial race has proved to be a splendid success.
Webb originally intended Mayor Busse's greetings to President Roosevelt should leave Chicago at 12:01 a.m. of the morning of October 1. he figured a 15-mile continuous schedule clear to St. Louis, a distance of 417 miles and arranged his time and transfer points accordingly. A few hours before the day set for the start, Webb was notified by Leroy Cook that the Illinois Power Boat Club men would not start at night and that they were starting at 11:35 a.m. on the morning of the 30th. This they did and Webb was unable to change his schedule in the Illinois river and consequently the race itself was run in the Illinois river. Commodore Theo. Weise, in charge of the power boats Bereda and Lizzie S, carried the message to Ottawa, Ill., a distance of 80 miles in eight hours, 11 minutes elapsed time. Incidentally the Lizzie S had the honor of opening the new locks in the drainage ditch near Joliet.
At Ottawa E. H. Heilbron was in waiting but received orders from Commodore Webb not to start until the original time set. This was 5 a.m. Chicago had started the race more than 12 hours ahead of time, but at Ottawa it stayed until this time had elapsed. From Ottawa it was a continuous race to Alton, a distance of 304 miles, and there again Webb's plans were not followed. Instead of going directly to St. Louis, C. F. Sparks decided it would be safer to await the coming of the president and consequently the race ended at Alton instead of St. Louis.
(Excerpts transcribed from Boating, November, 1907, pp. 31-35 )
[Tom Webb was a real giant in the beginning of power boat racing on the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio Rivers. He formed the Mississippi Valley Power Boat Association and this association became a powerful rival to the American Power Boat Association, the A.P.B.A. eventually adopting many of the rules of the M.V.P.B.A. after several years of tension between the two organizations. Later, the Webb Trophy became one of the most highly prized contests in the power boat world - GWC]
[Thanks to Greg Calkins for help in preparing this page. — LF]